23 July 2012

It may seem like I am a little late coming to this party, but in reality I have spent the last week engaged in multiple conversations about the president’s “you didn’t build that” quote, and candidate Romney’s spin.

Unfortunately we live in a soundbite society. You might be lucky and hold someone’s attention for a couple paragraphs of a facebook update. 140 characters is all you get usually and it’s not enough to deal with even the simplest of situations in our modern world.

And now according to the republicans, we have the president saying “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”, with the clear implication according to the spin, that as a business owner, you didn’t build your business. But that is not at all what the president actually said. His full quote, at least the three most relevant paragraphs of the speech are:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me, because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t – look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something, there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Clearly any rational and honest reader of that quote has to admit that what the president implied is “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build [the roads, bridges, Internet, teacher that inspired you and American system that allowed you to thrive]. Any other representation of what is being said here is an outright lie, and instead of continuing to hedge and spin, candidate Romney should stand up to the spin and denounce it.

It will never happen. And that’s unfortunate, because beneath that quote is a set of deeper philosophical questions that deserve to be explored.

  • What is the role and expectation of government toward businesses, especially when the interests of the business do not always align with the interests of individual citizens or the larger society?
  • What is a fair and equitable way to divide the tax burden for common or public goods (roads, infrastructure, military and police protection)?
  • Is it fair and equitable to tax different kinds of income at different rates, or even not tax some income at all?
  • Are there perverse and unintended consequences when we privatize what was formerly a public good or service (for instance, if prisons are private, aren’t the shareholders happier if more people are declared criminal and incarcerated, violent or not)?
  • How do we, as a society, balance the corporate interest of maximized profits (and by corollary minimizing expenses), against the social interest of workers earning a ‘living wage’ and being able to provide for the ‘general welfare’ of their family?
  • As the last remaining super-power, are we as a society bearing too much of the world’s burden as the neighborhood cop? Are we involved in conflicts we should be avoiding, and avoiding others we should be fighting? Upon what basis do we draw that line?

The debate on these questions, and many, many more, can and should rage in public square. It has for centuries. For example, the debate over whether to have income, estate and property taxes versus consumption or sales taxes was argued in the Federalist Papers:

Personal estate (as has been before remarked), from the difficulty of tracing it, cannot be subjected to large contributions by any other means than by taxes on consumption. Hamilton Number 12

It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. They prescribe their own limit, which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed – that is, an extension of the revenue. When applied to this object, the saying is as just as it is witty that, “in political arithmetic, two and two do not always make four.” If duties are too high, they lessen the consumption; the collection is eluded; and the product to the treasury is not so great as when they are confined within proper and moderate bounds. Hamilton Number 21

So, let’s have a conversation. Sit down and have a real, honest talk about the problems that face us, and the solutions that (no matter how far-fetched and politically infeasible) are available to us.

Try to make a tweet out of that…

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